In a metropolitan area spoiled by two world-class orchestras, it’s easy to forget that the Twin Cities are full of first-rate classical musicians who play all over town, sometimes only for a handful of people, for the sheer love of the repertoire. Many of these performances cost little or nothing to attend, but if one happens to be at the right place at the right time, when the musical stars align, it’s possible to hear music as moving and sophisticated as anything offered up at Orchestra Hall.
On Sunday afternoon, I happened to be in the audience for one such concert at Bethel University’s Great Benson Hall. Presented by the Bethel Chamber Players, a group of faculty members in the music department at Bethel, the concert was free to anyone who could find their way to the hall. It was a perfect afternoon for chamber music—cold and windy, a terrible day to be outside—and a respectable number of students, friends, and fellow faculty were in attendance, though the hall was by no means full.
I was there because my son’s cello teacher, Hong Wang, an amazing musician from China who received his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, is the group’s cellist. Joining him were pianist Juan Li, a former Schubert Club competition winner; violinist Yuko Ninomiya Heberlein, an SPCO alum; and bassist Mark Kausch. And, because the group’s regular violist broke her finger a few weeks ago, veteran SPCO player Tamas Strasser filled in on viola.
All of these people are gifted players, so the expectations for technical precision are high at such a recital, but not exactly stratospheric. One expects some lovely music, competently played, but nothing extraordinary. Fortunately, music does not obey the laws of expectation, so it’s the surprises along the way, the things one doesn’t expect, that make many performances memorable.
The concert began with a spirited, nimble performance of Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio no. 1 in G Major, the so-called Gypsy Rondo, a standard for piano, cello, and violin. It was well played by Li, Wang, and Herberlein, a nice taste of Haydn, but even the players could smell the dust it seems, for they then launched into a jazzy, energetic rendition of a piece called Primavera Protena Tango, by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, who was a genius at mixing classical idioms, modern jazz, and Latin music into a unique musical cocktail. The piece is short, and wouldn’t feel out of place in a French bistro, but beneath its intoxicating rhythms lies a great deal of playful complexity. It’s a fun piece no matter what, but it’s also a smart, amusing piece if you know what to listen for, and this trio clearly enjoyed tossing something different into the usual chamber mix.
After intermission, SPCO violist Tamas Strasser and bassist Mark Kausch joined the trio onstage for the meat of the program, a presentation of Franz Schubert’s entire Trout Quintet, a work often heard in pieces but not often performed in its entirety. From the brisk opening passages, the quintet established a sure-footed confidence that carried it through the entire piece. But the magical moment—the one that’s difficult to plan for and happens only in the midst of a public performance, due to the delicate energy between musicians and an audience—arrived in the midst of the famously speedy scherzo section. With Wang and Strasser locked into sync on cello and viola, Li’s precise piano bubbling underneath, and Heberlein’s violin skipping along on top, Schubert’s Trout Quintet—which I’ve heard hundreds of times and is one of my favorite pieces—suddenly sprang to life in a way I’ve never heard before, with velocity, balance, and execution all clicking into place at once. The SPCO’s Strasser knew they had nailed it; his eyebrows were practically dancing. Wang let out a little smile, the classical music equivalent of pumping one’s fist in the air.
The moment didn’t last long. They held onto it for much of the fourth “song” movement and finished relatively strongly—but it was that fleeting moment in the middle of it all that made this performance memorable. The program was recorded, but I’m not certain the recording will do the performance justice. Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place, at the right time, to experience such moments. They are fragile and fleeting, here then gone.
Yet they happen all the time, in unexpected places all over the Twin Cities, and if you’re there when it happens, it’s hard not to feel lucky. It’s not often that you get more than you paid for.